They Live (1987) – A Review


A review of the 1987 sci-fi action film They Live about aliens living among us, starring Roddy Piper, David Keith and Meg Foster directed by John Carpenter

They Live Roddy Piper

For me They Live was the last gasp of Carpenter’s bizarre, scary, funny film career. Early on he was on a role creating classic horror stories and strange worlds in his films. Granted maybe not all were huge hits financially, but they would eventually be embraced by fans and have a more lasting impact than how it looked at the time of their release.

Before the steep decline with the quality his films took in the 90’s, with a three million dollar budget Carpenter would write and direct one of the most famous cult films from the 1980’s starring a pro wrestler and a pair of sunglasses.

Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who inadvertently puts on a pair of special shades and suddenly sees aliens and subliminal messages all around us. What’s a good honest drifter to do?

Start kicking alien ass of course!

Roddy Piper Meg Foster They Live 1987Filled with quote worthy dialogue, some pretty cool looking aliens and an epic five minute slugfest between Piper and David Keith in an alley, They Live is a fun diverting B-movie. Since first seeing it upon it’s initial release my reaction has always been – “well, it’s not a great movie, but it’s a fun one!”. Watching it years later I still feel the same way.

Piper is very well cast as our lead hero. He obviously handles the stunts very well. He spouts out his overblown, ridiculous lines with real relish. (“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass….and I’m all out of bubblegum.” How can you not love that!) He’s also a surprisingly charismatic, taciturn, likable guy onscreen.

They Live Alien hidden subliminal messages ObeyThe visuals of seeing the true black and white world through the sunglasses is a real kick. It’s such an incredibly simple idea, but it’s a powerful one. Years later those huge signs saying ‘Obey’, ‘Consume’, ‘Don’t Question Authority’, still gives me a nice jolt. The aliens themselves are a pretty creepy, weird looking lot. Seeing them in black and white maybe makes them more sinister to me.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t go as far with this idea as I think it could have. It’s a very rich concept – aliens controlling us with subliminal messages through the media.

They Live 1987 John Carpenter Aliens
Carpenter directing one of his alien actors

Plus, you have the potential allegories and criticisms of the excess 80’s that could be targeted, the upper class abusing the lower class, selling out for the sake of the mighty dollar, there’s a lot of exploring you can do here. However, the movie just touches on the concept without getting any deeper and sticks mainly to shoot outs and running, which is fine, but I think could’ve gone much further. But heck, that street brawl is fantastic!

They Live is a pretty satisfying, unusual movie. It’s got the sci-fi, the action, the humor and it earns it’s place as one of the most enjoyable cult movies from the 80’s. It’s kind of strange when I consider this was the last of Carpenter’s films I liked. It’s been a really long time and I wish he would find his way again.


2 thoughts on “They Live (1987) – A Review

  1. This film is so underrated. I also wish Carpenter went back to making film like this, 'Big Trouble in Little China' and the 'Escape From…' movies.

  2. This movie came out when I was in college, and I loved it. My own criticism was the fight scene between Piper and his friend who will NOT put on the glasses. It goes on way too long, and several people in the audience began yelling at the screen "oh, just put on the damn glasses, moron!"

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